Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Clipping An Angel's Wings

Do not all charms fly
At the touch of cold philosophy?
Philosophy will clip an Angel's wings,
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,
Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine –
Unweave a rainbow...
So wrote John Keats. As many idealists and romanticists have done ever since, Keats was putting on his Smock of True Art, levelling his pistol at the 'cold unfeeling heart' of science and plugging away.

Once upon a time, many years back, I probably would have leant to the side of Keats. In fact, to this day I sympathise with Keats, and I understand, as only someone who has been on both sides of the fence can, his fear and where it from where it comes.

But these days I disagree in a most profound way with his assessment that philosophy (by which he means science in keeping with the manner of his time), "empties the haunted air" by "unweaving the rainbow".

See, the mistake that Keats makes, and one that I very nearly made in a desire not to lose a sense of mystery from my life, is to think that the intent of science is to explain everything, and by inference, trivilalise it; to pit the marvels of the universe against the measure of man. This is a view of science that is fundamentally and seriously wrong.

Science, as practiced by real scientists, is a tool with which we can examine the universe and make assessments that are not based on the way we would like it to be but on the way that it tells us it is. This is one of the most rigorous intellectual and philosophical challenges that any human can undertake. Religion can't do it, art doesn't feel the need to do it, and capital 'P' Philosophy sits on the fence. Only science seeks to look squarely at the truth and endure its harsh blows.

In a private email about my recent post on homeopathy, a correspondent suggested that I was 'narrow-minded' in my view. I explained that to the contrary, my 'open-mindedness' about homeopathy was what convinced me it was bogus; I once used to think that it should be considered as a complementary medicine (and yes, I even used it myself), but my wide reading about it, my willingness to entertain both sides of the argument, was what led me to doubt its efficacy. I still read about research into homeopathic claims. If someone can give me some substantiation that homeopathy works in the manner in which it is suggested that it does, I promise I will change my mind. But you see, so far no-one has been able to do this. The support for homeopathy is anecdotal and diffuse and minimal at best.

On the other hand, if I want to demonstrate that clonal science effectively keeps millions of people healthy every day, it is a trivial exercise.

Is this any less marvellous, just because we understand exactly why it works?

Keats, like many artists, was afraid that science would strip our world and our lives of mystery. If he had been willing to spend a little bit of his time with science, he might have discovered, as so many scientists have, that the deeper you look into the universe, the more mysterious it becomes.

This does not mean that we need to invoke supernatural beings like gods and demons to explain it. It just puts us in mind of the one thing of which we should always be aware: we are tiny parts of an extraordinarily complex machine of which we know so very little. Only hubris in the form of bad science or bad religion even attempts to suggest that we can understand it all.

And if you want mysteries, try these:
★Why does the number phi (1.61803399...) appear in so many seemingly unrelated places, from plant structure to the event horizons of black holes?

★Where is your conscious self? Where does it go when you fall asleep?

★Do prime numbers occur all the way to infinity?

★Why do we dream?

★Would the universe exist if we weren't here to see it?

★Why do alcoholic drinks retain their aroma longer than non-alcoholic drinks?

★Is the string of numbers in pi completely random forever?

★Will the internet ever become sentient? Would we even know if it did?

★How does memory work?

★Why do normal body cells go berserk and multiply out of control in cancers?

★Why is it that some people can be hypnotized not to feel pain, and some people can't?
No-one knows the answers to these questions. It is possible that someday, we might know something of some of them. But then again, we might not. The crucial thing to understand is that by asking questions about these things, we don't diminish ourselves, or our dreams. And you can be sure, that for every question we answer, another two will arise.

16 comments:

Anonymous Universal Head said...

Beautiful, intelligent post. I get very frustrated at that sympathetic look I sometimes get if I tell a religious person that I don't believe in a god or an afterlife - as though I am by immediate inference a cold, 'practical' person with no spirituality or sense of wonder. Just the opposite. Personally I think my sense of wonder is very healthy, fully engaged as it is celebrating the universe as it is - a vastly complex, gloriously unfathomable system without director or creator that somehow managed to result in us along the way.

It's like when a fifteen year-old Christian comes up to in the street full of the confidence that comes with thinking they know the meaning of life. Live it, don't think you've solved it.

January 04, 2006 6:53 PM  
Blogger Radioactive Jam said...

I'm with you. There's no shortage of mystery, and no need to fear the - I don't know, effects, maybe? of scientific scrutiny.

January 05, 2006 12:06 AM  
Blogger Joe Fuel said...

Well said, friend.

January 05, 2006 2:28 AM  
Blogger Joey Polanski said...

If 2 wernt a evn number, woud it then not be divisibl by itself?

An how much wood woud a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck coud chuck wood?

Th werld may nevr no.

January 05, 2006 4:21 AM  
Anonymous amazed said...

Yes, science is quite fascinating. It describes a universe so vast, so intricate, so complex that, apparently, no single human mind is capable of comprehending all of the complexities described by the various disciplines of science, and so much yet to be explored and discovered, from the "vast expanses of interstellar space" to to the minute mysteries of sub-atomic particles and random lasers. All fitted together so magnificently. And mystery of mysteries, it all just happened.

January 05, 2006 12:21 PM  
Blogger jedimacfan said...

The biggest mystery to me (at least in South Carolina) is why anyone would allow a sewage pump to be built directly behind a Burger King? And furthermore, why does that stoplight always turn red and force me to sit there and sniff the stench?

And Joey, how many licks does it take to get to the center of a tootsie pop?

January 05, 2006 1:07 PM  
Blogger anaglyph said...

Joey: "How much wood could a woodchuck chuck..." is what the scientific world considers a 'null hypothesis', I believe. Woodchucks can't chuck wood, so there's no point speculating on chucked wood tonnage. It's the equivalent of saying "If I humans could fly, how far would you get before running out of energy..." We can't fly, so there's no point speculating (see, you didn't think I could make my answers serious too...)

amazed: Well, it happened because some kinds of conditions were right for it to happen. Less brave people feel the need to insert some kind of creator in about there, but really, what's the point? It's so far back in the chain that it is a meaningless assertion. You can postulate a creator, but it makes absolutely no difference. Unless you think you have a personal conduit to the creator, and you presume to know the mind of that creator and, well, there we go with the superstition again. But you're not suggesting that, right?

jedimacfan: I would have thought the Burger King/sewage pump connection offered very little mystery at all. And the stoplight is merely nature's way of getting to think about that connection.

January 05, 2006 3:53 PM  
Blogger Joey Polanski said...

Th correckt anser is: "As much as a woodchuck woud chuck wood, if a woodchuck coud chuck wood."

See? If ya use yer countrfactual conditionals propprly, no onell notice when yer utterin trivialitys.

January 05, 2006 3:57 PM  
Blogger jedimacfan said...

What is the air speed velocity of a swallow?

(And not the kind of swallow that could be used in conjunction with your Rasputin post.)

January 05, 2006 10:57 PM  
Blogger Jill said...

What a beautiful and intelligent post, Anaglyph. Thanks for making me stop and think today.

Universal Head, I just had that very conversation yesterday. I know how you feel!

January 06, 2006 4:08 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I happen to be a fan of Bad Religion.

January 06, 2006 6:32 AM  
Blogger anaglyph said...

Which is the perfect place for me to point out that the word 'fan' is derived from 'fanatic'. QED.

January 06, 2006 9:40 PM  
Anonymous Universal Head said...

Bad religion. Wasn't that a 70s prog-rock band? Glad to hear they still have a fan.

January 06, 2006 9:54 PM  
Anonymous still amazed said...

Sorry to be so late in the day on this one, but would it really make no difference at all if there were a creator? Wouldn't an objective scientific mind be the least be curious about how it all got started and from whence it all came -- if it came from whence at all? Isn't the Big Bang Theory an attempt to explain how and where it all started? Why would anyone have come up with such a theory except out of scientific curiousity? Has anyone ever calculated the probability that all that science describes in the universe (or is it a multiverse that we live in?) could have resulted from random interaction matter and energy?

Here's a probability argument, only in relation to the probability that a single living cell could result at random. (The argument is not mine mind you; I am obviously not smart enough to advance this one): The probability of the chance formation of a hypothetical functional ‘simple’ cell, given all the ingredients, is acknowledged to be worse than 1 in 10 raised to the 57800th power. This is a chance of 1 in a number with 57,800 zeros. It would take 11 full pages of magazine type to print this number. To try to put this in perspective, there are about 10 raised to the 80th power (a number with 80 zeros) electrons in the universe. Even if every electron in our universe were another universe the same size as ours that would ‘only’ amount to 10 raised to 160th power electrons. (Read that last sentence carefully.) That makes 10 raised to the 57800th power a very big number.

January 07, 2006 1:01 PM  
Anonymous anne arkham said...

Science never tries to answer the hows or whys. It only seeks to observe what is.

January 07, 2006 4:45 PM  
Blogger anaglyph said...

See my post Dreams Beneath the Tamarind Tree.

January 07, 2006 5:25 PM  

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